Coltrane was a more fascinating musician beyond the shadow of her legendary husband.
Alice Coltrane was the second wife of saxophonist John Coltrane, and played piano in his band in the wild final years of his extraordinary career. She was a more fascinating musician beyond the shadow of her legendary husband, however, expanding her career into devotional music, encounters with Indian music and through the use of harp, Fender Rhodes electric piano and electric organ. Spiritual Eternal collects her three studio recordings in 1976 and 1977 for Warner Brothers, music that demonstrates that Coltrane was operating in a wide-open, boundary-less manner that was both searching and meandering. She moves across a set of styles yet seems to bring the same meditative spirit to all of them. The spirit—searching, open, positive—is fantastic. The music varies.
The reissue presents the music in the order in which it was recorded. The six tracks from Eternity were recorded in 1975, and they are musically unfocused even as they all express a similar outlook. Three feature Coltrane’s idiosyncratic use of a Wurlitzer electric organ with a pitch-bending feature that allows her to sound like a mutable double-reed instrument driven by electronics. The pitch-bending is critical to her voice on these tracks, giving almost every phrase a warbling, Eastern sound. She rarely plays more than one note at a time, and so this work comes off like that of a saxophonist who spent a great deal of time listening to South Asian music.
“Morning Worship” sets this sound, twirling in tight patterns (and beginning with an unmistakable quote from “My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane’s most famous performance), against the highly vocalized bass playing of Charlie Haden and a sea of percussion that includes a stringed instrument that drones in waves, sitar-like. The music sits in one place, not quite going anywhere, spinning beautifully on itself, then just fading out. By contrast, the organ gets funky with a riff-like melody on “Los Caballos,” with Latin percussion grooving as Coltrane plays licks over a set of basic chord changes. Because this almost sounds like jazz fusion, the leader’s odd patterns and penchant for bending her pitches out of a known key comes off as daring. The groove gets you, and her playing keeps you guessing. On the other hand, “Spiritual Eternal” puts this crazy, toy-like organ sound up against an orchestral arrangement that is, well, schmaltzy– not cool or good or mind-expanding but maybe fascinating because no one ever thought to put a weird-ass organ solo over such a mainstream piece of arranging.
Coltrane plays harp on the delicate, trifle-like “Wisdom Eye,” and deploys Fender Rhodes on “Om Supreme,” playing a long introduction of soulful chords before delicate unison vocals enter, eventually blossoming in a set of naive harmonies that are pretty in a gauzy way. “Spring Rounds” is a setting and arrangement of a portion of Rite of Spring for a small orchestra of strings and woodwinds in which Coltrane seems not to perform. It explodes into a flurry of improvising at one point then concludes with some quiet textures. These pieces each present a different side of an artist who is chasing a feeling, but on their own they seem incomplete.
The second reissued album is 1976’s Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, which presents three Hindu devotional songs (including the somewhat familiar “Hare Krishna”) behind which Coltrane provides fairly simple keyboard backing, and two instrumentals. The most interesting track by far is the 19-minute “Om Namah Sivaya,” a duet between Coltrane’s Wurlitzer organ and drummer Arjuna John Coltrane, Jr., with Alice setting up a nursery-rhyme-ish groove, playing both single-note lead and a droning bass tone. The bulk of the performance is a wild solo that thrives over a low drone, with the drummer playing interesting jazz time in the background. At 19 minutes, however, a solo needs to be compelling to really hold your interest. And, as interesting as Coltrane is as a textural player and mood setter, her melodic improvisation is not 19-minutes good.
The last LP collected here is Transcendence from 1977. The opening trio of tracks are among Coltrane’s most magical, with her harp in the foreground. “Radhe-Shyam” includes a string quartet, and it feels focused, purposeful and gorgeous. Next, “Vrindavana Sanchara” places harp in concert with percussion and tamboura, everything a dizzying swirl. The title track bring back the string quartet, with the harp working in thrilling runs as the strings play a string, interesting part not constrained by strict tonality. The remaining tracks return to the formula of Coltrane playing gospel-styled Fender Rhodes, with singers and percussion performing South Asian songs. The music is interesting and soulful but largely unrelated to the intriguing stringed instrument music that preceded it.
This inconsistency or failure to create holistic artistic statements, of course, does not compel a negative review. In the jazz tradition, this might be called a dead end, music that was flowing from John Coltrane’s experiments in extended improvisation and modal encounter with the east and then veered into idiosyncrasy. The devotional music sounds, at best, like music actually recorded in a temple, not something created by professionals. It is joyous but not art, perhaps. The work on organ and harp, in conjunction with various accompaniments, has a sense of structure and development, but its best qualities are those of daring rather than achievement.
Decades later, the music sounds beautiful but quirky, interesting but not compelling, suggestive rather than transcendent. There are moments of thrilling invention, but they come in pockets rather than swaths. The records are simply eccentric rather than brilliant.
Finally, they tell us more about what was possible from a major record label in mid-‘70s than about the music itself. Verve or Blue Note or Sony would no sooner put out music this unfocused and exploratory today than they would put out music as diamond-serious as John Coltrane’s. But who can blame them? This music meanders at best, striking gold only in a few places. The ‘70s were a more interesting, better time for music like this, allowing experimentation to take hold in a Los Angeles recording studio with major label support. Your heart wants to applaud the experimentation, but perhaps your ears only require a single listen.